Dir: Zhang Yimou. China. 1999. 100 mins.
Prod co: Guangxi Film Studios, Beijing New Picture Distribution Co. Int'l sales: Columbia. Prod: Zhao Yu. Scr: Bao Shi. DoP: Hou Yong. Ed: Zhai Ru. Mus: San Bao. Main cast: Zhang Ziyi, Sun Honglei, Zheng Hao, Zhao Yuelin, Li Bin.
Of Zhang Yimou's two films either pulled from or rejected by Cannes last year, Not One Less won the Venice Festival's Golden Lion and The Road Home was presented in competition at Berlin. The Road Home is undoubtedly the lesser of the two, being a sweetly photographed but decidedly naïve tale of a village girl who falls for the city man who becomes the local teacher, marries him after many tribulations and finally insists at his funeral that his body is transported on foot from a faraway hospital back to the village he served.
The fact that Gong Li, Zhang's now married former partner, was head of the jury at Berlin lent an added spice to the European premiere. But spice is what was missing from the film which, though portraying the village and its environs with some eloquence, meanders along with little dramatic edge after its prologue, which has the schoolmaster's son coming home from the city to find his father dead and his weeping mother alone. The epilogue is more effective too as the cortege is brought home, with the coffin carried, without payment, through the snow by the teacher's former pupils. It's the middle section which tries for charm and often achieves sentimentality as the young girl who was to marry him (Zhang Ziyi, looking rather like the young Gong Li) waits by the wayside for a word with him and follows him everywhere.
Zhang says that his film is a reaction against 'the really vulgar commercial films which now dominate our screens'. He was, he adds, trying to achieve a story anchored in realism and the Chinese tradition of poetic narrative. His carefully framed Cinemascope images bear this out as does his direct, uncomplicated treatment of the story. But sometimes the lack of detailed characterisation and ancillary incident makes for a film that seems shorn of the panache Zhang brought to such films as Raise The Red Lantern and Ju Dou.